Saturday, January 02, 2010

Working the buffet line

My job at the casino buffet was the my first restaurant job in 20 years. Since the early 1970s, my career has emphasized institutional food service (now called non-commercial food service by Food Management magazine).

In a way, the 10-week job in the buffet restaurant was really an extension of my nearly 40-year career feeding military, hospital and prison populations. Instead of focusing on plated service, the buffet was organized like an upscale serving line.

Like any new job, I took it to heart and set out to train myself how to become the most competent buffet cook possible. Even though the job was physically demanding -- long hours on your feet with constant running when the buffet was busy -- I quickly learned that I needed to become familiar with each food item on the buffet line.

Over the next month, I'd like to discuss six or seven lessons for cooks working on the buffet line. Really, much of this advise applies to all cooks. A good cook will apply these lessons to any setting, whether in restaurant or institutional food service.

Learn the location of every item on the buffet line.

Customer service is one of the most important jobs for the cook that works in view of the public. Patrons frequently look to the cooks for direction.

From my first shift in October, patrons continually asked, "Where's the cocktail sauce?" I eventually found it helpful to walk the buffet line sometime during the shift to learn the location of each item.

Questions like, "Is the curry shrimp hot?" and "What's in the enchiladas?" often sent me into the kitchen for answers. I found it necessary to taste new foods, a task that I thoroughly enjoyed. (Of course, sometimes it took two bites!)

While standing in front of the buffet line on one of my last days at the casino, a customer asked, "Where are the potatoes?" She was looking for the potatoes that had become the starring attraction on the new Saturday "Steak and Potatoes Night."

In addition to "numerous steaks such as Delmonico, Strip, Tri Tip, Butt Steaks, Pork Chops, Grilled Chicken Breast, Snow Crab Legs and Carved Prime Rib," the buffet served "many styles of potatoes such as Mashed, Pan Fried with Onions, Baked, Sweet Au Gratin and more with all the toppings."

I showed the patron that we had a dozen different potato dishes, all located next to the appropriate steak dish. Mashed potatoes along with roasted red potatoes and peppers were located on my station.

Garlic fries, scalloped potatoes and candied sweet potatoes were on the carver station, between to the prime rib and grilled t-bone steak. Customers could find garlic mashed (along with one or two other preparations) on the American bounty station.

I'd always tried to walk the entire buffet line sometime in the first two hours of my shift. Even though most buffet offerings remain the same from day to day, the chefs introduced new dishes each week.

Remember that you represent the restaurant when you're working on the buffet line. It's your responsibility to know the make-up of each dish on your station, as well as the location.

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